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Karen Starr, veteran and owner of Karen's Kafe and Stephanie's Bar and Grill in Calhan, Colo., opened her two restaurants to socially distance dine-in services on Wednesday, May 6, 2020. Despite Colorado Gov. Jared Polis' order for restaurants to remain closed to dine-in service until further notice, Starr says her decision to open the restaurants is to defend constitutional rights and their businesses' solvency. (Chancey Bush/ The Gazette)

Colorado restaurants continue to struggle to stay in business amid the coronavirus pandemic, despite ongoing policy efforts to help keep them afloat.

The latest Colorado Restaurant Association report from June shows that capacity limits are “the biggest challenge” for restaurants, said Sonia Riggs, the head of CRA. Two-thirds of the more than 220 restaurants surveyed by the CRA say they’re turning people away due to capacity limits.

“Even with outdoor expansion programs,” Riggs said, nearly 80% of restaurants are still operating below 50% capacity. More than a third are operating below 30% of their normal capacity.

“Large spaces have been especially squeezed,” she said, as the state's 50% capacity or 50-person cap, whichever is lower, has meant some are restaurants have been forced to operate below 10% capacity.

“If we don't see these things change quickly, more than half of Colorado's restaurants may close by September,” Riggs warned, adding that additional revenue streams, such as the ability to sell alcohol to-go and for delivery, “are critical.”

For some restaurants, she said, “this will be the difference between them surviving and closing permanently.”

Earlier this week, one of Denver's most beloved restaurants, Racines, announced it was closing for good — months ahead of schedule  due, in large part, to financial complications caused by the pandemic.  

On the upside, Riggs points out, about 72% of Colorado restaurants report their diners are complying with face mask rules. Another 88% say patrons are adhering to social distancing requirements.

As cases of the coronavirus are on the rise again in Colorado, local leaders are taking steps to respond, with some  including Denver Mayor Michael Hancock  committing to shut down the local economy for a second time if necessary. 

“A second closure would be devastating to restaurants, who are still in an incredibly tenuous position given capacity limits,” Riggs said. “We hope the public does its part to comply with current public health guidelines so that it doesn't come to that. If indoor dining does close again, that will make outdoor expansion programs all the more important.

“Regardless of what happens with indoor capacity, we are pushing for continued expansion of these programs,” she said, “as they will be a lifeline for restaurants well into the fall as well as next year as restaurants begin to recover.”

In Denver, at least 250 outdoor expansions for restaurants and bars have been approved to give local businesses the opportunity to allow sit-down service while adhering to social distancing guidelines.

As part of the initiative, which kicked off May 18, Denver has closed several streets, including 25th Street from Larimer to Lawrence streets. The city also approved 148 right-of way closures that include partial closures of sidewalks, parking lanes and travel lanes, and is now temporarily allowing “communal dining” that allows multiple restaurants to share a common space outside.

Roughly 2,800 establishments are eligible to apply, according to city spokesperson Heather Burke, including coffee shops, cafes, wineries and distilleries, or other similar places offering food or alcohol. Restaurants and bars are encouraged to submit proposals online, “with considerations for safety, mobility, and local emergency access.”

Once approved, the temporary program will be available through Labor Day, at which point the city will decide whether to extend the opportunity.

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